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How to Help Underclass High School Students Prep for College

Are the first two years of high school too early for college planning? Certainly not! Here are four ways to help students start thinking about the future.

It’s never too soon to start thinking about college. The earlier you and your teen begin college preparations, the more prepared everyone will be when the time comes to submit those ever-important applications. “These years are when students build some of the most critical parts of their high school résumé,” says Bobbi Dempsey, author of Degrees of Desperation: The Working-Class Struggle to Pay for College. “This is the stuff that colleges will be looking at, so you want to try and do whatever you can to look good on paper and be the type of candidate the schools on your list will look for.” Here are four ways you can help your underclass students begin preparing for college.

Open up the conversation

Now is a great time to initiate discussions about post–high school education. It’s crucial to determine your teen’s mindset and knowledge base regarding higher education. Some teenagers know exactly what they want to do after high school and where they’d like to study; others haven’t even considered it. And that’s okay! Asking your student about their plans after high school will give you a starting point for continuing the conversation in the coming years. Now is a good time to point out links between college and employment—to talk about which jobs require college degrees, and what it takes to obtain the education necessary for certain roles. It’s also a good time for them to take stock of their talents and preferences:

  • Do they prefer working alone or with others?
  • Do they want a career that allows them to be inside or outside?
  • Are they most comfortable in a rural, urban, or suburban environment?

Such reflections from early in school can help them narrow down college and career possibilities and chart their path through high school. A student considering a career in engineering, for instance, should choose challenging math and science classes throughout high school.

Related: How to Think About College as a High School Freshman

Encourage academic excellence—but don’t push it

The grades your teen achieves in their first years of high school will have a permanent effect on their overall GPA; buckling down in junior or senior year is frequently not sufficient enough to overcome poor grades earned early on. Plus, intro courses lay the groundwork for more advanced courses later. A student who misses essential concepts now may struggle with advanced material later. However, trying to convey that information to a 14- or 15-year-old student is tough. “The trick is not pressuring your teen for unrealistic grades,” says Joanna Nesbit, mother of two college students and writer who covers college for U.S. News & World Report and CollegeXpress. Make sure your teen knows you value effort more than final grades, and teach them how to self-advocate and ask for help if they struggle academically.

Be sure you and your student at least understand their high school’s graduation requirements, and if your student expresses interest, encourage them to pursue Advanced Placement (AP) or dual-credit college classes. AP classes are college-level courses students can take right at their high school. They can then take the corresponding AP exam at the end of the class, and depending on their score, they may earn college credits for the class. Dual-credit courses are another way for students to earn college credits in high school by taking classes on nearby college campuses among traditional college students.

Related: 11 Tips to Help Your Teen Transform Failing Grades Into Academic Success

Get your financial facts straight

Now is the time to begin discussing how you’ll pay for college if you haven’t already. You need to have an honest conversation about how you as parents will help with college, if you can at all. As painful as this discussion can be for all involved, the earlier you have it, the more time your child has to explore scholarship opportunities and build an attractive scholarship profile. Good grades, extracurricular involvement, and volunteer service are good eligibility boosters. If needed, your teen can apply for part-time jobs and begin saving money for college too.

This is also the time to crunch numbers. Begin by learning as much as you can about your expected family contribution (EFC)—the amount that colleges assume your family can pay. This number is calculated based on your family’s financial information and doesn’t necessarily reflect what you actually plan to pay toward college costs. You can use the College Board’s online EFC calculator to determine your family’s EFC.

Knowing your EFC can help you make sound college choices. “If you have a high EFC, you may be shocked to learn that many colleges won’t give merit scholarships to your student. So your students will need to target a different, less elite type of college for merit aid,” Nesbit says. Alternatively, if your EFC is low, your student may be eligible for significant financial aid. In that case, the actual cost for your child to attend a pricey private college may be far less than the list price—and in some cases, less than the cost of a public university.

Related: Financial Transparency: The FAFSA, Your Student, and You

Fit in extracurricular fun

Sports, music, theater, and other extracurricular activities aren’t only great stress-busters—they’re a good way to gain experience and attract collegiate interest. “Many colleges and universities are looking for students who demonstrate leadership or passion, so it’s better to focus your energy on a couple of activities where you will shine, as opposed to trying to be in a dozen different things,” Dempsey says. “If you already have specific schools in mind, browse their admission websites and materials to see what they look for and how heavily they weigh things like volunteer work and leadership roles.”

Related: The Importance of Extracurricular Activities in the Admission Process

These tips will help your child have a successful, happy high school experience while also laying the important groundwork for college early on. This low-pressure way of preparing for college will ensure they're not caught off guard in any of the planning process when they really have to start thinking about it junior year. 

Students can start researching their options and interests right here on CollegeXpress using our College Search tool!

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